'The Velvet Underground's first album only sold 10,000 copies," Brian Eno once said, "but everyone who bought it formed a band." That 'everyone' would probably include Bono, The Edge, Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten, Thom Yorke, Bobby Gillespie, Johnny Marr, John Squire, Bernard Sumner, and Brian Eno, to name but a few who would have been influenced by the Velvets' nihilistic masterpiece.
Featuring a print of a banana by Andy Warhol on the cover, it has been long heralded as a sublime if dark record. Recorded in 1966, it was ahead of its time, a proto punk hybrid of post-Weimar Berlin decadence and Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa and the Marquis de Sade.
The Observer recently called it "the most influential rock album of all time." Rolling Stone put it at number 13 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Universal have just released a luxuriant 6-CD box set of this legendary avant-garde tour de force.
It was an album, also, that openly advocated the taking of Class A drugs and good old sexual deviancy; none of which was, in hindsight, much of a surprise with Lou Reed standing menacingly behind the mic stand. It was certainly part of a new counter-culture of anything goes, and tough on you if you found it offensive.
It features songs that are unlikely to be covered by One Direction or Jedward any time soon. I'm Waiting For The Man is essentially about going uptown in New York to buy drugs ("Twenty-six dollars in my hand/Up to Lexington, 125/Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive"). The song Heroin is a homage to the taking and effects of the highly destructive drug. Venus In Furs, meanwhile, is The Velvet Underground's literal interpretation of the 1870 novella of the same name by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch about a man who wants to be dominated as a slave by his lover.
"Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark," Lou sings. Reed also read novels by the likes of Hubert Selby, Jr. ( Last Exit to Brooklyn) and William Burroughs (Junkie) and felt that what those authors were putting in their books should be put into song too. You could argue that loopy Lou has been doing just that ever since. To go back even further, in 1959, Lou, aged just 17, was sent by his strict conservative parents to see a shrink in New York for his homosexual feelings. He ended up in a psychiatric hospital for two months where he received electric shock treatment three times a week.
"You can't read a book because you get to page 17 and you have to go right back to page one again," he remembered its effects. "If you walked around the block, you forgot where you were."
In 1965, Reed set up The Velvet Underground with Welshman in New York, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison. Andy Warhol ended up managing them; which meant that the band received considerable media attention. Warhol felt that Reed looked awkward on stage performing live so with the help of Paul Morrissey, they recruited German singer Nico. She added the dark Marlene Dietrich feel with her spellbinding vocals on I'll Be Your Mirror, All Tomorrow's Parties, and Femme Fatale (about Edie Sedgwick -- fashion model and heiress and one of Warhol's stars) on the debut album. Paul Morrissey -- who co-managed the Velvets with Warhol during Nico's time in the group -- recalled recently that the Velvets only got a record deal at all because of the otherworldly glamour of Nico: "I sent [the tapes of their first recording sessions] to all the record companies, they all said no. Finally this guy from Verve contacted me, Tom Wilson. He was a very nice guy, Harvard-educated. He had signed Simon & Garfunkel to Columbia.
"He said, 'I'm interested in recording them, I went to see them. I can't put any of this on the radio, but that girl is fantastic. She could be a big star, and I'll sign the whole group just to have Nico'. Well, when I went back I made the mistake of telling that to Lou, and he really froze. The last thing in the world that he wanted to hear was this album was only being taken on because of beautiful Nico..."
Warhol was formally credited as the album's producer although John Cale seems to have done all the actual work and arrangements. Lou Reed saw it differently: "Andy Warhol just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol," he said.
"In a sense, he really did produce it, because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren't large enough to be attacked... and as a consequence of him being the producer, we'd just walk in and set up and do what we always did and no one would stop it because Andy was the producer. Of course he didn't know anything about record production -- but he didn't have to. He just sat there and said "Oooh, that's fantastic," and the engineer would say, "Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic, isn't it?" The Velvet Underground & Nico is fantastic.